Many of Judd Apatow’s protagonists have had the mindset of someone who lives in their parents’ basement. Steve Carell’s 40-year-old virgin, Seth Rogen’s many affable stoners, and Amy Schumer’s titular train wreck were all lovable heroes who had plenty of growing up left to do. But it took until The King of Staten Island, Apatow’s newest feature, for the director to make a story about someone who literally lives in his mom’s basement—a choice perhaps motivated by the fact that the film’s star actually does. But while Pete Davidson lives with his mom partly to escape the trappings of fame, his character Scott uses his subterranean man cave as an emotional carapace.
This narrative is very much in line with Apatow’s oeuvre. The writer-director usually starts his works by reveling in the chaos of his highly flawed leads, before digging into the insecurities that haunt them. Films such as Knocked Up and Funny People are all about the frightening business of maturing, and the sacrifices one must make in the process. But in The King of Staten Island, the stakes are higher and grimmer. It begins with a scene of Scott, a wayward 20-something still struggling with the loss of his firefighter father, closing his eyes while behind the wheel of a car. He isn’t just stuck; he’s psychologically unmoored, something Apatow wants to wrestle with from minute one.
A slight problem being: that’s minute one of 136. While it’s a little darker than the rest of Apatow’s films, The King of Staten Island is a similarly long and shaggy work that mixes goofy hangout scenes, wrenching family drama, and even some tense action sequences. Apatow’s comedies always feel loose and overstuffed at the same time, in part because he encourages improvisation on set and includes lots of rambling (but funny) dialogue that does little to advance the plot. That style is an endearing trademark of the director’s, but it occasionally hampers the heavy themes at the heart of The King of Staten Island.
The script makes a major effort to wrestle with the trauma underlying Scott’s immaturity. Davidson, a lively and raw stand-up comic, has always seemed like a fairly limited actor in Saturday Night Live sketches, but his performance here is stripped-down and honest. Scott can be quite charming and gregarious, and then immensely frustrating; he’s delightful when hanging in the basement with his stoned pals (played by Moisés Arias, Ricky Velez, and Lou Wilson), but inadvertently neglectful of his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), and sister, Claire (Maude Apatow). The loss of his father in the line of duty looms over everything, and Judd Apatow and Davidson are unafraid to depict what an emotional crutch that history has become for Scott, who uses it as an excuse for his irresponsibility.
Apatow’s meandering style fits Scott’s flaky personality, but it makes the first half of the movie feel particularly formless. Individual scenes are funny and well acted, but there’s no real arc to latch onto besides Scott’s adventures in amateur tattooing, a profession he craves but lacks the discipline for. A romantic subplot between Scott and his pal Kelsey (Bel Powley) is kept super-casual, and after the frightening opening scene depicting his dangerous driving, the film pulls back from showing anything that intense, instead basking in Scott’s unseriousness. His jokiness is a defense mechanism, but that could have easily been communicated with greater narrative focus. Other, plottier moments, like a bodega robbery Scott’s involved in that goes sideways, feel abrupt and unearned.
In the latter half of the film, Apatow finally starts to home in on the point of his tale, and that’s when The King of Staten Island becomes compelling and moving. Margie starts dating another firefighter, the gloriously mustachioed Ray (Bill Burr), and Scott is suddenly compelled to hang out with Ray and his work crew, including the no-nonsense Papa (Steve Buscemi), an old colleague of his father’s. This is more emotionally muddy territory than Apatow usually ventures into, and it’s told with visual simplicity. Other hits relied on celebrity cameos and bumped up against the world of show business, a way to work easy, crowd-pleasing jokes into the sort of personal comedy Apatow likes to make.
The King of Staten Island can’t rely on that kind of glitzy material, so instead it digs into the human tragedy at the heart of Scott’s life. There are fewer punchy one-liners and trailer-ready jokes, and more weighty conversations about the dangerous allure of the work that claimed Scott’s father’s life. But because they’re played with straightforward authenticity, those exchanges are breezier than the movie’s first hour. Apatow’s greatest skill is at dissecting relationships, and that should’ve made up most of The King of Staten Island’s running time. Yes, the film is a tale of a young man facing his demons, but it works best as the story of a ruptured family finally learning how to put things back together.